EETimes – Art Appreciation for Engineers
// php echo do_shortcode (‘[responsivevoice_button voice=”US English Male” buttontext=”Listen to Post”]’)?>
Although artists and scientists can view nature and the physical world in different ways, there are many parallels between how they interpret major ideas about time and space.
In his recent blog titled “Who Said Engineers Can’t Think,” Martin Rowe lamented the insane attitude of some liberal arts graduates and professors towards engineers. In my mind, perhaps the worst of all are those who are involved in the art world. Not the artists and painters themselves. The artists I have met, like the engineers, are down to earth people, usually focused on the job at hand and eager to find the best way to express an idea.
If you want to get a stimulating education on important trends and themes in painting as well as the relationship between important ideas in art and physics, I recommend that you read Leonard Shlain’s book.
First published in 1993 and republished in 2007, some chapters are also available online. But if you’re like me and the process of reading for information involves a lot of underlining and commenting in the margins, I suggest purchasing the print version. There are many copies on Amazon to buy..
According to the author, surgeon and professor of medicine at the University of California, a lifelong enthusiast of physics and art, the inspiration for his book came to him during a trip to New York with his daughter in museums. of art. During this trip he got the idea that great painters and scientists are remarkably similar in the way they get their ideas, although they operate with different mindsets when they see nature. When studying art history, Shlain thought he saw an approximate parallelism between great ideas in physics at particular times and the themes and techniques pursued in the paintings of great artists.
To prove his thesis, Shlain delves deeply into what has happened in Western art since about the Renaissance era. He compares the art of painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Cézanne, Matisse, Monet, Manet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Magrite and Duchamp to what emerged from the work of physicists and mathematicians such as Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Issac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, James Maxwell, Hermann Minkowski, Bernhard Riemann and Albert Einstein.
Perhaps the simplest case of this parallelism is that of Leonardo da Vinci, who was both a natural engineer and a scientist as well as a gifted artist. Shlain describes in detail how the phenomena that Da Vinci studied in nature as a scientist often found their way into his art. To me, these chapters in Shlain’s book are perhaps the most entertaining and insightful. Aside from his examination of the parallels he found in both Da Vinci’s work in the early 14th century and Newton’s 150 years later, the book is full of goodies that were worth the book’s price.
Tidbit # 1: It was Da Vinci through his observations of nature who understood and succinctly described what we now call Newton’s first law of motion. Sadly, Da Vinci wrote about it in his secret left handwriting code that no one else could read until recently. Who knows what might have happened if it had become more widely known 150 years before Newton !!
Tidbit # 2: At the same time as Newton was developing his theories of gravity, optics, and calculus, he was also studying and writing extensively on now bizarre and magical topics such as alchemy, transmutation, stone. philosopher and the elixir of life. Boy, talk about destabilization. (Newton’s theory of transmutation?)
Shlain is most stimulating in the chapters he devotes to the various schools of modern art since the mid-19th century and their relation to what was happening in theoretical physics: surrealism, cubism, Dadaism, expressionism, futurism and abstract. art, to name a few.
Discussing Einstein’s first unsuccessful attempt with fellow physicist Leopold Infield to write a book that made his ideas understandable to ordinary people, Shlain notes that “if Einstein bemoaned the lack of a vocabulary with which to communicate his theories remarkable, he only had to turn to the arts to find the appropriate images.
An example he cites is the work of art of the cubist Marcel Duchamp and his “Nude descending a staircase n ° 2”, in 1912, obtained a more lucid representation, “writes Shlain. “The only place in the universe where this observation would have been possible would be on board a beam of light.”
Commenting on the relationship between the painting “Bateaux (1873)” by Edouard Manet and Riemann’s research on non-Euclidean space, Shlain draws attention to the fact that the artist has falsified what was hitherto real. conventional horizon in a straight line and replaced it with a horizon that bends slightly into a subtle arc. “The elucidation of the concept of curved space-time and its place in the physical world was still 50 years away, but in the 1860s it was [Manet] anticipated this idea and wowed its puzzled viewers.
It is a rich book with countless examples from art and physics to support Shlain’s thesis, with which you may agree and others not. Sometimes he had to push his analogies to the breaking point in order to reach the two audiences he was targeting.
“My intention was to reach art-inclined readers who want to know more about new physics and scientists who would like to have a setting in which to appreciate art,” writes Shlain. “Because the language of physics is so precise unlike the evocative language of art, I sometimes had to expand the meaning of scientific words and sometimes stretch them into poetic metaphors. “
Shlain undertook the difficult task of reconciling two different ways of seeing the world: the artistic one where image and metaphor are the language, and the physical world where numbers and equations are primarily used. And just for that, it deserves to be read, and reread. His book has been extremely helpful in broadening my understanding of both worlds.